Working at Home Edges Out Taking the Bus
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last year, for the first time in a very long while, more Americans got to work by walking down the hall at home than by getting on a bus, train, trolley or ferry. This milestone, reported by the Census Bureau in its release of 2017 American Community Survey data in September, has not gone entirely unnoticed. But it hasn’t gotten a ton of attention, either, so I’m going to give it some more.
Here’s the breakdown of how people in the U.S. got to work in 2017:
So does this mean public transportation is on the way out, to be supplanted by people sitting on their sofas working on laptops? Not exactly. Commuting by private car, while still the overwhelmingly dominant means of getting to work in the U.S., has been losing market share since the Census Bureau began asking this question every year since 2005, with carpooling accounting for most of the decline but driving alone down a little as well.
The percentage of workers commuting by public transportation is up since 2005, although it has fallen slightly over the past five years. The really big action has been in working from home, especially since 2015.
Clearly, despite the occasional corporate crackdowns on employees who never come into the office, telecommuting is not going away. The people reporting that they work at home aren’t necessarily doing it every day — the American Community Survey questionnaire asks “How did this person usually get to work LAST WEEK?” But this means the survey is also missing workers who (like me) spend one or two workdays a week at home.
Another way to slice this data is to measure the percentage change in the number of workers in each category since 2006 (which was the first year for which I could find numbers instead of just percentages). Because the workforce as a whole has grown over that time, the default trend is upward. Carpooling still shows a decline, though, and while working at home is the standout, biking, public transportation and the taxi-motorcycle grab-bag category (which likely includes Ubers, Lyfts, Vias and the like) have all made bigger gains since 2006 than driving oneself to work.
Obviously, some of these big increases (bicycling’s in particular) are from tiny bases. But in densely populated cities and metropolitan areas where driving’s share is well below the national norm, there are some interesting things going one with other modes of transportation. Here’s the change-since-2006 chart for New York City, with the share of all workers using each mode in 2017 alongside as a reality check.
Yes, there are a lot more bikes on the streets of New York than there were a decade ago! Most of these bike commuters — 72 percent nationwide, 69 percent in New York — are male. No other mode of transportation has anywhere near that big a gender differential. Interestingly, the taxi, etc., category is down since 2006. In a city where it was already pretty easy to hail a ride a decade ago, as long as it wasn’t 5 p.m. and/or raining, the advent of ride-hailing apps has not transformed commuting. (Also, in case you were wondering, survey respondents who use multiple means of conveyance to get to work are supposed to pick “the one used for most of the distance.”)
Let’s move on to the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metropolitan area, birthplace of the ride-hailing app phenomenon. Do Lyft and Uber show up in the number of people using “taxicab, motorcycle or other means” to get to work in San Francisco and its suburbs? They sure seem to:
Carpooling has also been on the rise in the San Francisco area, even as it has declined in the rest of the country. That’s probably because freeways and bridges in the Bay Area are lousy with high-occupancy-vehicle lanes that give carpoolers a big advantage over lone commuters. And for all that people in the area complain about the inadequacy of its public transportation system, there sure are a lot more of them using it (which may of course be why it feels so inadequate).
In most of the country, people who can afford to drive themselves to work simply drive themselves to work. But in crowded cities and metropolitan areas where driving and parking are especially expensive and/or irritating, there’s a lot of commute experimentation going on.
Working at home is part of that experimentation in places like New York and San Francisco. But in the metropolitan areas with the highest share of stay-at-homers, it seems to be more of a lifestyle choice.
Boulder is a college town, Denver exurb and outdoor paradise nestled against the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Bend is a former logging town and current outdoor paradise nestled against the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range that has in recent years become a favorite destination for California real estate refugees and even people who continue to hold down jobs in Silicon Valley, a 10-hour drive away. As for Lawton (estimated 2017 metropolitan-area population: 127,349), I really don’t know how it ended up No. 3 on this list, given that it’s far from any mountains and its biggest employer is the Fort Sill army base. I would guess, though, that its 2.7-percentage-point margin of error, bigger than that of any other metro in the top 15, has something to do with it.
Most of the work-at-home Meccas are smaller metropolitan areas with great scenery. Bigger metros with lots of white-collar workers and reputations as nice places to live (Raleigh, Austin, Denver, Portland) figure prominently as well. Working at home is thus something of a luxury good — the median income of those who do it is higher than that of any other commuting category. It doesn’t seem to be driven by how tough the commute is in a particular metropolitan area. And it seems clear that it’s going to be a major part of the future of work.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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